A Fundamental Solution to the ‘Conversion Crisis’ or a Practical One?

by Shmuel Rosner

The difficulty of defining who is a Jew and, accordingly, the increasingly difficult task of agreeing upon the nature of the “gateway” to the Jewish people (conversion), has accompanied the Jewish people throughout history. From time to time a crisis erupts when a change in policy is made regarding the question of conversion.

Such a crisis recently arose in response to the attempt of Israel Beiteinu MK David Rotem, with the agreement of the haredi parties in the Knesset, to change the conversion law.

This recent attempt was met with great criticism on the part of Diaspora communities – alleging that the proposed bill will empower the Chief Rabbinate and its ability to enforce its agenda.

The first question that must be raised in every discussion related to conversion is whether to take a fundamental or practical approach. In other words, is there any point in a debate over the essence of conversion, which purports to suggest a formula for determining who is a Jew, or is it perhaps better to limit the discussion to the question of practical solutions while avoiding as much as possible fundamental questions that would inevitably lead to crisis? In this context, the Rotem bill offers an interesting “war game” model.

In a schematic description, this is the model: If the Rotem bill intends to solve a problem that requires an urgent solution (the conversion of hundreds of thousands of Israeli residents); and if it is possible to suggest a practical solution that would help alleviate the problem (privatized conversion by community rabbis, for instance); and if it is possible to arrive at a skeletal version of a solution that does not touch upon the fundamental issues (in this, the Rotem bill, in its final and tabled version, ultimately failed); then the skeletal, limited solution must be chosen.

Of course, the difficulty of making an unequivocal recommendation on this schematic model stems from the fact that in the Rotem bill war game, it turned out that even the skeletal model had vigorous opponents who might further thwart it in future iterations. In the case of the Rotem bill it was the haredi parties, but there are other possible skeletal models that other groups will likely oppose.

In a certain sense, the difficulty in constructing a consensual skeletal model derives from the fact that even practical solutions to the issue of conversion are always accompanied by priorities that reflect ideological viewpoints. Legislative action around the Rotem bill, carried, even in its skeletal version, the following beliefs:

  • Conversion of immigrants from the former Soviet Union is beneficial and important for the Jewish people. This is a belief that may inspire argument on the grounds that mass conversion of those who are not interested in keeping the mitzvot makes the very definition of a Jew superficial.
  • The current conversion process is too strict, and a way must be found to create a more lenient procedure. This is an assumption that many rabbis will argue against.
  • Rabbis recognized by the Chief Rabbinate are those authorized to convert.

This practice will also have opponents, even among Orthodox rabbis.

The practical reflects a priority of fundamentals, and therefore does not ensure a solution. The question whether to choose local, limited solutions – whose success is also not assured – over an attempt to resolve at least some of the fundamental problems is still open.

Shmuel Rosner is a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and a Jerusalem Post blogger. Published in conjunction with The Conference on the Future of the Jewish People, 2010; courtesy JPPI.